Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Dependent Origination, Emptiness, and the Value of Nature

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Dependent Origination, Emptiness, and the Value of Nature

Article excerpt

This article explains the importance of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination to contemporary environmental ethics and also develops a Buddhist account of the relational, non-instrumental, and impersonal value of nature. The article's methodology is "comparative" or "fusion" philosophy. In particular, dependent origination and Nagarjuna's doctrine of emptiness are developed in contrast to Aldo Leopold and J. Baird Callicott's conception of deep ecology, and the Buddhist conception of value is developed using Christine Korsgaard's Kantian analysis of the distinction between intrinsic/extrinsic value and means/ends value.

Introduction

What is the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and contemporary environmental ethics? In particular, from a Buddhist perspective, does nature have value in itself or only instrumental value because it is necessary for sentient life? At the core of Buddhism are the four noble truths, which are centered on the reality of suffering, the nature of suffering, the elimination of suffering, and the path that leads to enlightenment. Compassion and relieving suffering focus on sentient beings that can suffer, and not on the intrinsic value of species or ecosystems. If only sentient beings have moral status, then the value of biodiversity and ecosystems is instrumental and not intrinsic. Nonetheless, we hope to show that, although Buddhist ethics does indeed emphasize compassion for suffering, the Buddhist conception of interdependence, the doctrine of dependent origination, provides a key premise in an argument that justifies the non-instrumental, but nonetheless relational, value of nature and the biosphere.

We start with the recognition of the pervasive impermanence of all of existence, which at one level is easy to see but which is only fully realized in the appreciation for the "emptiness" of all things. We argue that many deep ecologists emphasize causal interdependence without an adequate appreciation of the significance of dependent origination and the more difficult Buddhist doctrine of emptiness (sections 1-2). After explaining these difficult aspects of Buddhist philosophy, and their significance to the concepts of ecosystems, species, and holistic conceptions of the biosphere, we develop an approach to environmental ethics that engages more deeply with Buddhist philosophy. We argue that the Buddhist rejection of essential, intrinsic properties undermines the idea that nature has intrinsic value. The relational and dependent nature of all phenomena implies that all value must be relational, and thus extrinsic. The distinction between intrinsic value and extrinsic value is central to our argument (and it is explained in section 3). We conclude by arguing that the value of alleviating suffering and the value of nature are intertwined and interdependent (section 4-5). Like all else, all value is relational and rooted in dependent origination.

Buddhism has a long and rich history that incorporates many cultures, rituals, and doctrines. There is now an extensive secondary literature on Buddhism and environmental ethics. Sponsel, James, Harris, and many others, focus on textual, historical, and cultural attitudes toward the value of nature. (2) An alternative to these more textual approaches to Buddhist philosophy, our approach in this article, is what Mark Siderits has described as "fusion philosophy" and Jay Garfield calls "cross-cultural philosophy." The idea is to integrate Buddhist philosophical insights and arguments into contemporary philosophical debates. The goal of fusion philosophy is to go beyond a descriptive comparative analysis, and also avoid simply assimilating other philosophical traditions into the paradigms established by Western Philosophy. Perhaps the concept of "intercultural philosophy" best captures the commitment to integration without assimilation (Cummiskey). At any rate, this is the approach that we take in this discussion. …

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